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Bill seeks to control news of outbreaks in Myanmar

At a time when the world anxiously monitors every update on COVID-19, a bill on dealing with infectious diseases has surfaced in Myanmar containing a provision to restrict reporting on the outbreak.

The bill proposed by the Ministry of Health and Sports aims to update the 1995 Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.

Its main objective is to make the government more responsive to dealing with outbreaks of diseases and to control them before they spread. It outlines responses and actions of government agencies in dealing with such situations.

“Officials from our department on the prevention of communicable diseases and other departments drafted the law,” said Daw Khin Khin Gyi, deputy director of Contagious Disease Prevention and Eradication for the Department of Public Health.

The new Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases bill was published in state-owned newspapers from February 8 to 11. Feedback and suggestions can be sent to the Union parliament office.

Breaking news and the media

One provision of the bill, Section 20 of Chapter 8, states that authorised departments of the Health Ministry or local health officers are prohibited for a certain period from breaking the news or releasing news about an infectious disease outbreak in certain areas that can frighten the public or cause panic.

First time violators could be fined up to K100,000 (US$69), while repeat offenders could be sentenced to six months in jail and or fined up to K500,000.

Daw Khin Khin Gyi said the provision is aimed at stopping the spread of fake news.

“It aims at those who spread fake news intentionally,” she said.

But U Myint Kyaw, first associate secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, said the provision is not just about fake news but news that could cause public panic.

“It doesn’t say about the news being true or fake but “possible to cause panic among public,” he said. “It just generalises, which means that people who publish true news can also get sued.”

U Myint Kyaw was also uncomfortable about blocking the news for a certain period.

“It means leaving people in the dark,” he said. “I can’t understand why information must be blocked in an infected area,” he said.

He proposed that the central committee that handles disease outbreaks include a person from a media organisation who understands the nature of news about contagious disease emergencies.

Health providers seek clarification

Health professionals want clarification of Section 15(b) in Chapter 7, which would oblige a household leader or family member, a business owner or person in charge to immediately report to the nearest government office if a member of their family or an employee catches an infectious disease or is suspected of being infected.

The provision raised concerns that employees with HIV may be dismissed by employers as the law requires the owner or the person in charge of the business to report them.

Dr Sid Naing, a public health service provider, said that while it is important that people notify authorities if somebody gets infected with a contagious disease, things can be more complicated if the information gets into the wrong hands.

“There’s a little problem with Section 15(b),” he said. “HIV patients and their medical professionals worry about it. Some even called me for help.”

Health professionals said the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism should be a part of the central committee that will respond to such an outbreak.

New law has advantages

Except for some provisions that need fine tuning, everybody agreed that the new law, which has 11 chapters and 25 pages, is needed to make the government more responsive in dealing with an outbreak of infectious disease.

Health experts said the bill could help in coming up with preventative measures against communicable diseases in line with the 2005 International Health Regulations issued by the World Health Organization.

“The old law focused on dealing with communicable diseases within the country,” said Dr Than Tun Aung, deputy director general of Ayeyarwady Region’s Department of Public Health. “The new law puts more emphasis on international public health concerns,” he said. “So it is a modern law.”

Daw Khin Khin Gyi said the new law compels household heads and business owners to immediately report cases of contagious disease on their premises to the nearest authorities. Sanctions would be imposed for those who fail to act.

“For example, if a poultry farm conceals a massive number of chicken deaths and does not report them, the epidemic may spread to other poultry farms and humans,” she said. “The infection could lead to deaths, and the country’s economy could be affected. We drafted this law to prevent that.”

There is also a provision that if a communicable disease is detected among public and private health workers after they contact an infected person, they have to immediately inform the authorities.

To implement the new law there must be an intensive public awareness campaign, healthcare experts said.

Dr. U Aung Tun, adviser to the Health Ministry, said he hoped the new law would not suffer the fate of other laws that were not implemented properly, such as the Food and Tobacco Law.

“The Food Law and Tobacco Law called for the authorities to take action against violators, but those responsible for enforcing it don’t take action. We need to educate the public,” he said. – Translated

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Source : Myanmar Times

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